In the Mass for Thursday of the 25th week of the year, we read from the book of the prophet Haggai, who wrote at the time of the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile, which had begun in 587 B.C. The Jewish people were permitted to return to the Promised Land beginning in about 538 B.C. Haggai wrote his book in the summer of 520 B.C., and in it he scolds the people for concentrating on their “paneled houses” while the Temple is in a ruinous state. He ties their weak piety to the failure of crops, their inability to enjoy what they have and other calamities.
We might look at a passage from the Book of Haggai and ponder what it means for us:
“This is what the Lord of Hosts says: ‘These people say, “The time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.’” Then the word of the Lord came through Haggai the prophet, saying: ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?’ Now this is what the Lord of Hosts says: ‘Think carefully about your ways. You have planted much but harvested little. You eat but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. You put on clothes but never get warm. You earn wages to put into a bag pierced through.’ You expected much, but behold, it amounted to little. And what you brought home, I blew away. Why? declares the Lord of Hosts. Because My house still lies in ruins, while each of you is busy with his own house.” (Hg 1:2ff).
God does not need a fancy temple, but we do. The building of beautiful churches says a lot about our priorities and where our heart lies. Churches express our love for God and our desire to honor and thank Him. They need not be extravagant, but they should be adorned with a beauty and form that stands out as sacred and memorable, as an expression that we love God and take Him seriously, that He is a priority in our lives. In the Middle Ages, the town church was usually centrally located and was the tallest and most prominent building. By the 16th century, palaces and government buildings began to take that place. Today, the skyscrapers of our cities are named for investment banks and insurance companies. Yes, our buildings say something about our priorities.
Churches are also meant to remind us of heaven. Until recent decades, they were built along lines that spoke to the heavenly realities both Moses and John saw as they were shown the heavenly worship and vision. Churches have high jeweled (stained-glass) walls because heaven does. Churches have glorious throne-like altars with the tabernacle at the center amidst tall candles because in heaven there is a throne-like altar with the Lamb upon it and Jesus stands among the lampstands. Paintings and statues of saints and angels, incense, priestly robes, standing and kneeling appropriately and the singing of hymns all remind us of the communion of saints and angels in the heavenly worship. All of this is revealed in the heavenly visions contained in the Bible.
Haggai’s opening vision also says a lot about our inability to enjoy even the good things we have without God at the center. We all have a God-sized hole in our heart and only He can ultimately fill it. Trying to get created things to fill that gap is both frustrating and futile. The good things we do have point to God, the giver, and should inspire in us a gratitude and longing for Him. If we remove or marginalize God, our disorder affections gnaw away at us; no matter how much we get we remain dissatisfied.
God says through Haggai that fixing the ruined Temple is the way to fix their hearts. It is less about the building than about hearts. It is interesting that some of the most glorious and beautiful churches in this country were built by poor immigrant communities. We now live in times of comparative affluence, especially in America, but although incomes and home sizes have grown our churches seem to be built on the cheap, lacking both the nobility and glory that belong to God and which poorer generations produced in the churches of their time.
The problem has both theological and liturgical roots. A flawed notion of the liturgy claimed that churches should look more like living rooms or dining rooms than heaven.
Another problem was, and is, the “poverty of Judas.” This is the idea that money spent on buildings would be better used by being given to the poor. There may be a little truth to that, but the poor also want and need beautiful churches that remind them of heaven and give due honor to God. A church is a space of beauty that all can share.
Yet another reason is that we just don’t value or prioritize the Lord and the liturgy as highly anymore. If we give less to the church perhaps we can buy a nicer car, a boat or a vacation home. How is that ephemeral stuff working out for us? Are we happier? Haggai says no: You eat but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. Exactly! All our blessings point to God and should instill gratitude and a longing for the true completion of an eternal relationship with Him.
Enough said. The point is not so much a building itself but what the building says about our hearts. God says today through Haggai, in effect, “Your paneled houses and the ruined Temple are a testimony to the condition of your hearts and your flawed priorities.”
Indeed, God should get the first fruits of our harvest, our best and highest effort. This is not because He needs them, but because we do.
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